Civilians Increasingly in Danger from Landmines in South Lebanon
In a corner of his garden in this south Lebanese town, Hilal Dia points to two olive trees, unpruned for 20 years, their trunks almost hidden by now dead grass.
Dia hasn't gone near those trees in all that time, he says, because three or four landmines lay buried around their bases.
"We bought some barbed wire six months ago, but we haven't had time to lay it out," he says.
For his neighbor, Colette, familiarity with something so dangerous and so close cost her a leg.
While she was picking nuts from her walnut tree she slipped on a rock, detonating a mine underneath that she had assiduously avoided for years.
Dia has been lucky so far, and Colette still has her life, but the number of accidents involving landmines in southern Lebanon has been alarmingly on the increase since Israeli troops withdrew from the region on May 24th after a 22-year occupation.
Since then, six civilians have been killed and 50 injured by exploding mines, with an official at one non-governmental organization dedicated to demining saying people out of unawareness or even a grain of fatalism about things risk "there being many victims."
The Israeli withdrawal brought with it the virtual overnight disintegration of Israel's client militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which had helped Israel control the 900 square kilometer (360 square mile) zone that ran along the 125-kilometer (78-mile) border with Israel.
Timour Goksel is spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which is soon expected to move into the formerly occupied zone as a peacekeeping force and one of whose most pressing jobs will be the demining of the area.
Goksel said Israel left behind 130,000 mines sown in southern Lebanese soil and the job of finding and removing them is a "dangerous mission" that will be a "long and exacting task."
There are 650 Ukrainian army engineers and Swedish specialists waiting to take on the task, which Goksel said will have a "military and a humanitarian aspect."
The military component of the job, viewed as top priority, will consist of "opening up roads" leading to UNIFIL positions the length of the border, where Israel has more often indicated the presence of minefields.
Israel has supplied the UN with maps showing the location of minefields it left behind, but which do not specify how many mines there are in each field.
The job of the UN sappers will be to neutralize the terrain surrounding hundreds of former Israeli army and SLA installations in the zone.
UNIFIL suffered its first loss to landmines in 1978, when a Swedish soldier was killed.
In the 22 years that have followed, UNIFIL has destroyed or neutralized 30,000 mines.
After clearing up the border area, there is still the problem of clearing mines further north, particularly along the line that separated southern Lebanon from the rest of the country.
In these areas, which were battlegrounds for the resistance and the Israeli army, the mines have been left in a more anarchic way, with minefields not systematically mapped out, according to a UN officer.
With the return of peace, civilians have been going into the areas to reclaim their fields or to picnic on riverbanks.
Land movement represents another danger. "A peasant who had been working his land for four years was killed by the explosion of a mine that probably was not there in previous years," said Nasser Abu Lteif, the president of a Lebanese non-governmental organization, Vision Association - MARJAYOUN (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)